The Arctic conflict: truth, fantasy or a little bit of both?

By Timo Koivurova - November 18, 2016

I have been pondering for a long time why many people consider the Arctic region an arena of some sort of a future conflict. A few years ago, newspapers told us that a conflict between the coastal states in the Arctic Ocean is approaching, because those states will try to obtain as much as possible of the hydrocarbon resources of the melting Arctic Ocean as possible. Some researchers provided their confident opinions on the matter, and the media got excited about the geopolitical turmoil caused by the latest gold rush.

The fact that the entire story was based on a lack of understanding of law of the sea received less attention. Researchers and the media did notice that the coastal states in the Arctic Ocean were examining the ocean bottom. Unfortunately, they less often asked state representatives why states where carrying out such seabed mapping in such difficult circumstances.

The coastal states of the Arctic region were, in fact, obligated to do that under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. As provided by UNCLOS, the coastal states must, within 10 years from joining the convention, present scientific and technical data to the Commission on the Limits of Continental Shelf. The commission then assesses how far the continental shelf may reach in the ocean bottom.

Currently, the discussion has shifted from the one focused on conflicts emerging from within the Arctic towards the question of how global political tensions can affect Arctic security and Arctic cooperation.

The Arctic states have been successfully collaborating since the mid-1990s within the Arctic Council. Currently constituting the primary forum for international cooperation in the region, the Arctic Council focuses on environmental protection and sustainable development, while excluding from its purview issues of military security.

Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea and the events in Eastern Ukraine were the final straw for the West. All parties have imposed sanctions against each other and the relations have clearly deteriorated.

Has this general deterioration of relations impacted Arctic cooperation, then?

Since all the other members of the Arctic Council have imposed sanctions against Russia, one could imagine that this has an impact on Arctic cooperation. It has partly occurred. The meetings of the Arctic Chiefs of Defense Staff ended after the annexation of Crimea and the economic cooperation also suffered some setbacks. Researchers started to wonder whether Arctic cooperation would completely come to an end.
The most interesting aspect from a researcher’s point of view, however, is that the administrative and political cooperation continued and became even stronger after the annexation of Crimea.

In general, the forums between the states in the region, in which both the Western states and Russia are members, continue their cooperation. A legally binding agreement, which promotes scientific cooperation between the parties has been just concluded under the auspices of the Arctic Council. Based on the work of the council, new international institutions have also been set up; organizations dealing with economic matters (Arctic Economic Council), marine security (Arctic Coast Guard Forum) and oil pollution prevention at sea (Arctic Offshore Regulators Forum).

Positive tendencies are also visible outside the Arctic Council. An agreement on fishing in the Arctic Ocean is under preparation, and the safety and security of Arctic shipping will be improved with a legally binding Polar Code coming into force in 2017. Arctic cooperation seems to be in everyone’s, including Russia’s, interests.

Even in issues related to the limits of the continental shelf, Russia has acted in accordance with international rules. When Russia, as the first state in the world to do so, presented a continental shelf submission to the commission, CLCS stated that Russia should gather much more scientific and technical data on the ocean bottom. Russia hence made a revised application for the commission in August 2015. Overall, Russia has complied with the UNCLOS rules on continental shelves very carefully and cooperatively.

What do we mean by a conflict?

Since Arctic countries have so much practical cooperation, it is important to ask what sort of conflicts could occur in the region. If we are claiming that the general deterioration of relations between Russia and the West is about to lead to some sort of a conflict, it is important to stop and think what kind of a conflict we are talking about.

If a conflict means, for example, an unresolved dispute over where a maritime border should lie, this does not shock many experts. Arctic states have disputed over their maritime borders bilaterally and sometimes even at the International Court of Justice, but such disputes have been settled sooner or later. It took more than 40 years for Russia and Norway to resolve a border dispute in the Barents Sea, but even this was settled in 2010. Furthermore, the dispute did not prevent cooperation between the countries. Norway, a NATO member, and the Soviet Union used to jointly manage fish stocks in the disputed region. In fact, most of the Arctic maritime disputes occur between close allies, like the United States and Canada.

Or, does a conflict refer to a single event, which causes a diplomatic slanging match? If, for example, the Coast Guard of the U.S. or Norway seizes a Russian fishing vessel or a person subject to sanctions travels to Svalbard, can this be defined as a conflict?

It is very rare that single events escalate into worse conflicts than a mild war of words, which is quickly lost in the mists of time. A case in point is when a Russian fishing vessel Elektron escaped in 2005 from the Norwegian Coast Guard to the Russian territorial waters, after having been arrested for illegal fishing. While the case lingered for some time, it did not affect general long-term Russian-Norwegian relations in the Arctic.

What would it mean, then, if the geopolitical tension expanded to the Arctic region?

In general, if Russian tensions grow with NATO, it is important to keep in mind that the Arctic plays a crucial role in Russia’s global military strategy: its Northern Fleet requires access to the Atlantic. We could also claim that since Russia has now increased its military presence in its Arctic regions, we have a security dilemma at hand: Could armament in Russian Arctic also lead to increased military investment from the part of its neighbors, and such investments reinforce each other in a vicious circle?

Although the Arctic states have sometimes declared they will boost their investments in measures guaranteeing Arctic security, this has not actually occurred. The United States has so far been unable to even purchase one new icebreaker for its Arctic areas. Overall, it is important to ask for what purpose Russia is militarily equipping its Arctic areas. Due to the difficult circumstances in the region, militaries are needed in many tasks in the Arctic, ranging from rescue tasks to safeguarding shipping in the Northern Sea Route. It is also important to monitor whether Russia implements all the planned military investments in its Arctic areas. They are expensive measures in a country whose economy is not doing well.

It is also important to consider for what strategic purposes could Russian military act in the Arctic. Russia has demonstrated to have the ability and will to use also military power to achieve its aims in foreign policy. This has been visible for a long time, since Russia’s Georgia operation in 2008, and it has accelerated in 2014 with the annexation of Crimea, war in Eastern Ukraine and military support for the Syrian government. This consideration leads to two questions: “Could Russia gain anything by military occupation in the Arctic and what would it even mean in the Arctic?” and: “What is the difference between Ukraine, Georgia and the Arctic?”

To the first question: Could it be possible for Russia to also use military power in forcibly claim the Lomonosov Ridge, if Denmark-Greenland and perhaps Canada, too, want it? We could also ask, what would Russia celebrate as a foreign policy win, if it did conquer the Lomonosov Ridge? It is very likely that Russia receives a large part of the Lomonosov Ridge and its hypothetical hydrocarbon resources just by complying with the UNCLOS rules. Furthermore, most likely they have nothing economically exploitable and even if something was found, it would take decades for Russia to even dream of drilling oil in these areas.

As regards the second question on differences between Russian actions in the Arctic and Eastern Europe, Russia has used military power against two states, which both were part of the former Soviet Union and which are not NATO members. It is a different matter to carry out attack in the Arctic Ocean against NATO member states, which are covered by alliance security guarantee. But could Putin’s regime, then, attack the non-NATO members, Finland and Sweden? Although these countries are EU member states and thus enjoy a softer form of security guarantee, the famous fifth article of the North Atlantic Treaty would not push the alliance to defend Finland and Sweden.

It is important to ask these types of questions, since they allow us to reflect what Putin’s Russia is prepared to pursue with military means in actual terms. There are no signs of Russia’s military strategy being completely unpredictable.

Russia has enabled the de facto separation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia from Georgia and annexed Crimea. All the regions have had a Russian majority, even though they were part of Georgia and Ukraine. To be sure, safeguarding the Crimean naval base and access to the Black Sea contributed to the decision to annex Crimea. Considering Putin’s military strategy so far, it is difficult to draw any parallels between the Georgian regions and the Crimean Peninsula on one hand and Finland and Sweden on the other.

The Arctic region lacks similar reasons for any military confrontation. If the general tension in the relations, however, leads to military actions between Russia and Western powers elsewhere, however, these confrontations are very likely to expand to the Arctic region. This is for the present, though, an unlikely course of events. A more crucial question is this: When do the relations between the US and Russia freeze to a point where it starts to affect Arctic cooperation, which has so far been largely shielded from tensions from outside the region?

The recent signs are not promising: The plutonium agreement was suspended by Russia, the United States and Russia are again on opposite sides in Syria, and the situation in Eastern Ukraine continues to be difficult. The situation is constantly changing, and we cannot exclude the possibility that we reach a point where the deterioration of the relations also leads to difficulties in the Arctic cooperation.

Did we receive answers to these questions from the election of Donald Trump as the next U.S. President? On one hand, it seems, Trump and Putin seem to pull in the same direction, perhaps leading to less confrontational relations and better Arctic co-operation. However, it is the unpredictability of Donald Trump that makes it very difficult to say anything clear on what his foreign policy agenda will eventually look like. Moreover, the Arctic Council may not be the forum where Trump would like to pursue his policies, given that the climate change is at the core of what the Arctic Council does – a phenomenon that does not seem to exist for the president-elect.

Cold War memories and Arctic fantasies

To come back to the question in the beginning of this text: Why do the media tell us more about the potential for Arctic war than about the increasing cooperation in the region? The past of the region must have something to do with this. The Arctic region was one of the central strategic regions during the Cold War, where superpowers were closest to each other, even neighbors. Some thought that the Cold War never left the region and it is just a matter of time when the armies of these two superpowers start defying each other also in the Arctic region.

The Cold War is, however, gone. There is no longer an ideological superpower called the Soviet Union, which aimed at spreading the gospel of communism and fighting against the US in different parts of the world.

I do not see this, however, as the only or major reason for why people are interested in the Arctic and imagine it being at the brink of a war. The Arctic region represents, for most people, the seedbed of imagination and creativity, and only for a minority a part of our everyday environment. Western popular culture is used to projecting our worst fears and fantasies onto the Arctic.

This is regrettable, since there is international cooperation at several levels in the region. Cooperation in the Arctic Council is an example of how the exclusion of military affairs from the competence of the council has enabled its operation, despite the prevailing cold period in geopolitics.

Timo Koivurova is Research Professor and Director of the Arctic Center at the University of Lapland and wishes to thank Christoph Humrich, Juha Käpylä, Harri Mikkola and especially Adam Stepien for their critical and insightful comments. A version of this commentary was first published in Finnish in the journal Peruste.